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Artists R.B. Kitaj Biography and Legacy
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R.B. Kitaj

American Painter and Printmaker

Movements and Styles: School of London, Jewish Art

Born: October 29, 1932 - Cleveland, Ohio

Died: October 21, 2007 - Los Angeles, California

R.B. Kitaj Timeline

Quotes

"There is a genius in origins - ripe for picking, in art and life, for those who feel it's there for them. Speaking as a diasporist Jew, my own origins explained themselves to me slowly and bodied forth in my life and pictures unsurely and uneasily."
R.B. Kitaj
"The Old Masters are like roots deep in the earth [...] and like so many young people, I was attracted by the pretty, frail wisps growing on the surface - the dandelion weeds (Duchampism, collagism, montage, Surrealism, the chimerical freedoms young artists cherish so). These dandelions are so easy to pluck, so much easier to get at than the deep roots [...]. They seem now like fool's gold in my own practice. I must leave their distinct potential to others."
R.B. Kitaj
"If some of us wish to practice art for art's sake alone, so be it [...] But good pictures, great pictures, will be made to which many modest lives can respond. When I'm told that good art has never been like that, I doubt it, and in any case it seems to me at least as advanced or radical to attempt a more social art as not to."
R.B. Kitaj
"My pictures had and have secret lives, and so there were things I did not tell, a lot of stuff I did not say back then which I'm saying now... I intend to continue allowing forms of secret life to paintings I'm working on right now because it excites me to do that."
R.B. Kitaj
"I carry themes in my mind for years before I will try to compose them. I've got themes that will last me now 'til I die."
R.B. Kitaj

"David Hockney is my oldest friend from 1959; the most popular artist since Warhol; the best natural draughtsman alive. At various times we have influenced each other, this Bradford Bombshell and I."

R.B. Kitaj Signature

Biography

Childhood

Robert Brooks was born to a Hungarian father and Russian-Jewish mother in Cleveland, Ohio in 1932. Kitaj's biological father, Sigmund Benway, and his mother, Jeanne Brooks, separated shortly after their son's birth. Robert's mother brought her son up on her own during his formative years, earning her living as a steel mill worker and as a teacher, before marrying the Austrian research chemist Walter Kitaj (pronounced "key-tie") - who, like Brooks was an émigré and a secular Jew - in 1941. Kitaj's interest in art was kindled at the Cleveland Museum of Art where he took art classes in addition to his high school education. On leaving high school in 1949, Kitaj 'ran away to sea' joining the crew of the SS Corona, a Norwegian freighter. He worked as a merchant seaman for some five years; his travels taking him as far afield as Cuba, Latin America, and Europe.

Education and Training

R.B. Kitaj with his wife Elsi, and their son Lem. Photograph by Lord Snowdon (December 6, 1962)
R.B. Kitaj with his wife Elsi, and their son Lem. Photograph by Lord Snowdon (December 6, 1962)

During periods of shore leave, Kitaj was able to pursue his interest in painting and drawing by attending courses at the Cooper Union in New York in 1950 and in 1952, and at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna in 1951. It was in Vienna however, where he learned of the likes of Fritz Wotruba and Albert Paris Gütersloh, that Kitaj's interest in European culture and intellectual life was aroused. Kitaj married his first wife, Elsi Roessler in New York in 1953 before serving two years in the U.S. Army between 1956-58 where his job involved drawing pictures of Russian tanks for war games. On his return, he and Elsi settled in England, they would have a son, Lem, in 1959, and adopt a daughter, Dominie, in 1964.

With the financial support of the US government's G. I. Bill (the Bill offered stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools) Kitaj was able to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford. While there, he studied under art historian Edgar Wind, who directed Kitaj towards the Warburg Institute where he learned about the important role history and antiquity could play in interdisciplinary research. It is not surprising then that pronounced historical references became a hallmark of Kitaj's work. Kitaj completed his education the Royal College of Art in London, and while there he met David Hockney, an artist with whom he formed a binding and lifelong friendship.

Mature Period

R.B. Kitaj and his son Lem and daughter Dominie, in Barcelona, 1973. Photograph by Sandra Fisher
R.B. Kitaj and his son Lem and daughter Dominie, in Barcelona, 1973. Photograph by Sandra Fisher

Kitaj's first solo show, Pictures with Commentary/Pictures Without Commentary was held in 1963 at Marlborough Gallery in London. It was followed two years later with a US exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York. Kitaj's career was then in the ascendancy when in 1969 his wife, Elsi Roessler, committed suicide; a personal tragedy that was thought to have been brought on by the trauma of an earlier stillbirth though Kitaj was known to be a serial adulterer. Indeed, in his memoirs (published posthumously) Kitaj recalled how he would disappear for weeks at a time with numerous girlfriends and was in his words spending "perfect days and nights whoring" in the Barcelona dockyards when Elsi took her own life.

From right: R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney, and friend. Photograph by Sandra Fisher (1974)
From right: R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney, and friend. Photograph by Sandra Fisher (1974)

Following his wife's suicide, Kitaj returned to the United States where he took up a teaching position at UCLA. It was Hockney, himself now settled in LA, who introduced his friend to Sandra Fisher, an American artist who would later become Kitaj's second wife. Though he was to continue teaching until the early 1980s (when he settled once more in Europe), it was Fisher who persuaded Kitaj to return to painting. In the early-to-mid 1970s Conceptualism and Minimalism were the dominant art movements in the United States. Kitaj was not swayed by what was fashionable however and he persevered in earnest with his figurative work, with many of his pieces even bearing academic annotations. The paintings from this time proved to be some of his most difficult and experimental and they divided critical opinion.

Late Period

R.B. Kitaj with Sandra Fisher, Photograph by Lee Friedlander
R.B. Kitaj with Sandra Fisher, Photograph by Lee Friedlander

In 1982 Kitaj and Fisher moved to Paris where, within a period of two years, they had married and had a son. The couple moved to London in 1984 where Kitaj continued to work, producing his First Diasporist Manifesto in 1989. The first major retrospective of his work took place at the Tate in 1994 and it was to prove a turning point in his life. Though a commercial success, the exhibition was roundly condemned by art critics who accused the artist of being a 'pseudo intellectual'. Indeed, writing in the London Evening Standard the notorious critic Brian Sewell described Kitaj as "a vain painter" who was "unworthy of [even] a footnote in the history of figurative art". Kitaj's friends and colleagues signed a public letter of support for the artist (though Kitaj thought this was a bad idea), but amidst the furore, his wife Fisher, aged just 47, and having been instrumental in curating the exhibition, passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Kitaj believed that the fallout from the Tate retrospective had put terrible stress on her and he blamed her death on the vitriolic critics ("They aimed at me and they got Sandra instead" he said).

Only a year later, however, Kitaj won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale. Notwithstanding what was an almost immediate revival in his fortunes, Kitaj decided to move back to Los Angeles in 1997 with his son, Max: "When Sandra died under enemy fire, London also died for me" he declared. In the final ten years of his life Kitaj's often used art to memorialize Sandra and to point an accusing finger at those he blamed for her death. Writing occupied more of his time too and his Second Diasporist Manifesto, in which Kitaj extended the aims of the first book by looking beyond the Jewish question and to ponder the diasporist experience as it touched (or might touch) all artists in exile, was published in 2007. Kitaj took his own life in the same year following a two-year battle with Parkinson's Disease, a condition that had robbed him of his ability to paint. (An unfinished memoir, Confessions of An Old Jewish Painter, was found in his effects and was published posthumously.)

Legacy

During a period in the 1970s and 1980s when Conceptual and Minimalist art represented the new avant-garde, Kitaj remained steadfast in his commitment to figurativism: "Don't listen to the fools who say that pictures of people can be of no consequence, or that painting is dead. There is much to be done" he proclaimed. Given his preoccupations with his connection the Jewish religion and people, his loyalty towards his fellow-travellers in The London School, his love for his second wife and the anger he felt towards the critics who he held responsible for her premature death, one can observe that Kitaj was an artist who made no attempt to separate his personal life from his art.

Kitaj was resistant to the possibility that his art might be misconstrued and this often lead him to annotate and/or footnote his images. That practice however did not endear him to those critics nurtured on the principle that fine art should be allowed to 'speak for itself'. Yet, despite a prickly relationship with a critical establishment (that believed that it was its responsibility to explain art) Kitaj received several significant honours in his lifetime.

Kitaj's legacy was further enhanced through his close associations and friendships with the leading figurative painters of his, or indeed any, generation. David Hockney stated that Kitaj had been "a great influence" on him personally and "a great influence stylistically on a lot of people"; Frank Bowling acknowledging his creative debt to Kitaj by even naming one of his paintings in his honor. One must not overlook his pastel and charcoal sketches either, a number of which helped illustrate his Diasporist Manifestos. Some commentators thought in fact that this was the artist's greatest strength, amongst them the renowned art critic Robert Hughes, who once declared that 'Kitaj can draw better than any man alive'.

Most Important Art

R.B. Kitaj Famous Art

Erasmus Variations (1958)

One finds in this early work the features that were to characterize Kitaj's lifelong preoccupation with the human experience and history; what one might be inclined to call a figurative-intellectualism. The title Erasmus Variations (or Desiderius Erasmus) refers by name to the Dutch scholar (Erasmus) whose absent-minded sketches, or doodles, were (re)discovered by Kitaj while visiting Oxford. Kitaj had recognized the sketches as a precursor of the automatic drawing technique that was to become a linchpin of Surrealism and one can easily recognize this automatic technique in this painting. However, Kitaj also pays homage here to another Dutchman, Willem de Kooning, who he grew to admire while staying in New York; as Kitaj put it: "de Kooning's surreal-automatic 'Women' were my favorite action paintings of the School of New York [...] and so I adapted something of that mode here; Double Dutch (Erasmus and De Kooning, both of Rotterdam)". Indeed, though de Kooning is grouped with the leading Abstract Expressionists, his paintings appealed to Kitaj because his work retained a commitment to figuration.

We find the culmination of the 'Dutch effects' in the way that Kitaj's canvas is roughly divided into nine squares in a three-by-three grid. Each grid has the rough outline of a face, save the square at the center with two faces, and the lower left square which features a bouquet of flowers. The gestural spirit of artistic freedom is revealed in the way Kitaj's vibrant color contrasts bleed across the edges of their respective boxes, in the expressive drips and smears of paint, and in the dramatic sweep of Kitaj's brushstrokes.
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Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Ximena Kilroe
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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